By Rebecca Stout
The black-footed ferret has a long, long history of being one of the most mysterious and elusive mammals in North America, its native range. And it’s no wonder, given the fact that this beautiful and clever creature only lives in remote prairie lands and rarely makes an appearance above ground. When he does pop his tiny masked face up to take a peek around, it is only for short periods of time and usually in the dead of night. While above ground, he darts burrow to burrow with staggering speed to hunt his prey that also lives underground — the prairie dog.
This tiny but ferocious animal is also adorable and charming, and he has a comical side that has long captured the curiosity of humans. Our curiosity was just beginning to get satisfied due to the hard work of many wildlife experts when these little gems of the prairie disappeared into what we thought was extinction — not once, but twice. Miraculously we got another chance to save this wonderful animal that is so crucial to the health of our grasslands. We are now able to enjoy and fully appreciate the black-footed ferret due to the determination and collaborative efforts on the part of a wide variety of organizations, agencies, scholars, scientists, businesses, and concerned citizens. Make no mistake, the struggle of the black-footed ferret remains critical, but marked success in reviving populations in the wild give us every reason to expect continued success as long as recovery efforts continue.
Black-Footed Ferret Day is September 26! You can ready yourself for the big day by reading this fact list that might help you to fall in love with these wonderful and much-needed animals who dance across our prairies. If the love bug already has bitten you, then enjoy this ever-growing list.
Facts About Black-Footed Ferret Physical Appearance/Anatomy
- Life on the prairie is very difficult for the black-footed ferret and they typically live for only 1 to 3 years in the wild as compared to 4 to 9 years in captivity. However, the National Parks Conservation Association reports that it is possible for them to live up to 12 years in captivity!
- This tiny animal weighs in at 1.5 to 2.5 pounds and is 18 to 24 inches long, with males being larger than females. Their cute bushy tail is 5 to 6 inches long. But don’t be fooled by their size, the feisty black-footed ferret is a fierce hunter.
- The coloration of the black-footed ferret features a pale yellow to tan body with a lighter colored stomach. In striking contrast, they have black legs, a black-tipped tail, a cute black mask, a black nose and, of course, black feet. An almost white forehead, muzzle and throat highlight their body of sleek, short fur.
- The black-footed ferret’s body is long with a long neck. They have short and stout legs, long whiskers and are equipped with sharp claws for digging, all of which enables them to easily navigate through underground prairie dog tunnels.
- Although the black-footed ferret has keen senses, they use the sense of smell the most for hunting prey in the dark and underground.
- Their little hearts beat at an average of 265 beats per minute. That’s more than double the normal human heart rate, which averages 60 to 100 beats per minute.
- Although their eyes are black by day, they shine a brilliant green at night when a light is shone on them due to a special reflective surface behind the retina called the tapetum lucidum. The amount of pigment and other substances in their eyes give it that unique emerald green color. And that sheen has a very important purpose; it helps them to see at night.
Via USFWS/USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr
Black-footed ferrets have a distinctive green eye shine at night when light is reflected from their eyes.
Black-Footed Ferret Scientific Classification And Names
- Black-footed ferrets are different from other ferrets and the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program notes that they are one of only three ferret species in the world (the other two being the European polecat and the Siberian polecat).
- These mustelids are members of the weasel family, and their scientific classification breaks down as follows:
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Mustelidae
- Genus and Species: Mustela nigripes
- A solitary lifestyle is the standard for the black-footed ferret except for breeding season; however, a group of black-footed ferrets is referred to as a business of ferrets just as is a group of domestic ferrets.
Black-Footed Ferret Ancestry And Origin
The Black-Footed Ferret Population
- It has been thought that there were once tens of thousands of black-footed ferrets in the wild.
- In 2013, it was estimated that approximately 800 black-footed ferrets were alive — 500 in the wild and 300 in captivity.
- As of 2015, there are approximately 280 black-footed ferrets living in breeding facilities according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
- The U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in northeastern Colorado and partners in other states are currently managing recovery efforts for this species.
The Black-Footed Ferret Diet And Hunting
- Prairie dogs make up more than 90 percent of the diet for this carnivorous predator. Black-footed ferrets also depend on the prairie dog burrows for shelter and raising their young. Without large populations of prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret cannot survive in the wild.
- One black-footed ferret feasts on at least one prairie dog every three days. And a black-footed ferret can eat more than 100 prairie dogs in a year.
- They hunt for sleeping prairie dogs in their burrows at night with the aid of the mirror surface behind their eyes, large ears and keen sense of smell.
- The black-footed ferret enters a burrow and bites the throat of a prairie dog to suffocate it.
- Hunting is not without risk. A group of prairie dogs can attack and kill a black-footed ferret.
- Ferrets cache (or store) their food. This reduces their exposure to other predators.
- On occasion, black-footed ferrets have also been known to eat ground squirrels, small rodents, rabbits and birds.
Black-Footed Ferret Habitat
- What many refer to as the “masked bandits of the prairie grasslands” live in the following habitats: shortgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, desert grassland, shrub steppe, sagebrush steppe, mountain grassland and semi-arid grassland.
- These little thieves steal a home from their prey. They live in prairie dog tunnels that they take over for shelter, nesting and raising their young. These tunnels can be as long as 40 feet and as deep as 14 feet.
- Black-footed ferrets are territorial, so you may find only one ferret per 99 to 148 acres on average.
- Males have larger territories than females.
- This mustelid is unique in that it is the only ferret species native to North America.
- Historically, the black-footed ferret’s range spanned much of western North America’s intermountain and prairie grasslands, extending from southern Canada to northern Mexico.
- The range for black-footed ferrets is very fragmented today. As of 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states that black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced into 24 sites across 8 states, Canada and Mexico.
Black-Footed Ferret Behavior
- These territorial animals live a solitary life.
- Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal, which means they are most active at night.
- Black-footed ferrets are fossorial, meaning they are adapted to digging and living mostly underground. The National Parks Conservation Association reports that black-footed ferrets spend up to 99 percent of their lives underground, while the Defenders of Wildlife states that it is 90 percent. Either way, that’s a long time!
- Possibly the most endearing behavior of this once-mysterious prairie dweller is his impromptu dancing on the prairie. The comical “dance” is characterized by joyous leaping, bucking, thrashing and twisting about.
- They don’t sing, but black-footed ferrets do have much to say, as they have a variety of vocalizations that can include chortling, chuckles, barks and hisses.
Black-Footed Ferret Reproduction
- Female black-footed ferrets are called jills, males are called hobs, and the young are referred to as kits.
- Breeding season for the black-footed ferret occurs in the early spring during March and April.
- It is believed that the black-footed ferret is polygynous. This means they do not stay with one mate for life. The males, having larger territory, often overlap with several females giving them better chances to breed.
- By 10 months of age, black-footed ferrets are ready to breed.
- Artificial insemination is used in captivity to increase the rates of success for producing healthy animals to release and replenish the wild population. This allows breeding of animals who cannot be paired or who have died in order to continue the species. The use of fresh and frozen-thawed semen was spearheaded by the late Dr. JoGayle Howard, a theriogenologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Via Ryan Moehring/USFWS/USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr
These captive-bred black-footed ferrets live in a conditioning pen to learn to hunt before being released into the wild.
Rearing Baby Black-Footed Ferrets
- Gestation in black-footed ferrets lasts 42 days.
- Kits (babies) are born during the months of May and June.
- Litters average 3 to 5 kits.
- Kits are born pink, hairless and blind — leaving them completely dependent on the mother.
- At 35 days of age, kits open their eyes.
- Kits remain underground for two months, emerging above ground at about 70 days of age.
- Black-footed ferrets are raised by their mothers and stay with them until fall.
- The mothers move the black-footed ferret kits from burrow to burrow and also teach them how to hunt.
- At just 90 days of age, kits are almost adult size and are able to hunt and kill their own prey.
- Kits are completely independent and go off to find their own territories by October.
Black-Footed Ferret Discovery, Extinction And Rediscovery
- Native Americans were the first humans to know about the existence of black-footed ferrets and to describe them.
- In 1851, John James Audubon and the Reverend John Bachmann were the first people to officially describe and document the black-footed ferret species.
- Settlers spread across North American prairies altering the landscape with agriculture and destroying prairie dog and black-footed ferret homes. By the late 1950s, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct.
- A small population of wild black-footed ferrets was discovered in Mellette County, South Dakota, in 1964. These were studied between 1964 and 1974, as the population declined and died out.
- In 1978, a Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Plan was approved by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
- Before the Mellette County black-footed ferrets died out, biologists captured nine ferrets and attempted to start a captive breeding program. It failed, and the last surviving ferret died in 1979. The black-footed ferret was considered extinct.
- A miraculous discovery of wild black-footed ferret existence was made on September 26, 1981 near Meeteetse, Wyoming, when John and Lucille Hogg’s ranch dog, Shep, brought home a dead ferret. The couple took the carcass to taxidermist, Larry LaFranchie, who then identified it as the “extinct” black-footed ferret and called wildlife authorities.
- Shortly after Shep’s discovery, wildlife authorities spotted a live black-footed ferret near Meeteetse, Wyoming, on October 29, 1981.
- Upon surveying the area, a small population of ferrets was found leading to the creation of the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program.
- In 1985, biologists saw the black-footed ferret population declining. It was discovered that canine distemper virus and sylvatic plague that fleas were carrying were to blame.
- Between the fall of 1985 and winter of 1987, 18 black-footed ferrets were captured in an effort to save the species. Those crucial 11 females and 7 males became the foundation for the successful captive breeding reintroduction program of today.
- Reintroduction into the wild began in 1991 with 49 lucky black-footed ferrets set free in Shirley Basin, Wyoming.
- Since the Wyoming release, reintroduction efforts have expanded to other sites in Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas, and Canada and Mexico.
Recovery Efforts For Black-Footed Ferrets
- The survival of this species is completely dependent on the success of the captive breeding program over the next 100 years.
- More than 30 federal, state, tribal and non-governmental agencies as well as universities, zoos and even land owners have been working together in a team effort since 1991 to reintroduce black-footed ferrets into the wild and to conserve the species.
- Prairie Wildlife Research has extensive field experience with black-footed ferrets. Travis Livieri, who founded the organization in 2001, is its very passionate executive director. He is often seen with boots on the ground himself.
- Members of Prairie Wildlife Research (PWR) and others who survey wild black-footed ferret populations, use high-powered spotlights to search the prairie dog colonies at night for black-footed ferrets. The black-footed ferret’s eyes shine green in the night when the light strikes them.
- Members of the PWR team not only survey but they monitor black-footed ferret populations. After a ferret is found by the PWR team, live traps are set to capture the animals so that they can be anesthetized in order to be monitored and given veterinary care. That care involves drawing blood for genetics and to test for disease, implanting a microchip under the skin of the neck that can be read by transponders, and giving vaccinations that protect them against deadly diseases, such as canine distemper.
- Remarkably it only takes 20 minutes for the PWR team to perform all of the procedures required to monitor wild black-footed ferrets. After the health check is done and they collect the data they need, they release the ferret right where they caught it — at their current prairie dog home.
- At many captive-breeding facilities, black-footed ferret kits are first prepared for living in the wild by receiving training while in captivity on how to kill prey and live in burrows.
- In 2009, at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the first kits were born using cryo-preserved sperm taken from male black-footed ferrets in 1997 and 1998.
- One of the original males of the 18 captured ferrets from Meeteetse, Wyoming, was named Scarface. He passed away approximately 20 years ago. In a remarkable feat, his frozen sperm was used to successfully produce offspring in 2015 at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
- Approximately 200 captive-bred black-footed ferret kits are released to romp the prairies each year. More than 4,500 of these beautiful animals have been released into prairie dog colonies across North America since 1991.
- New technology keeps growing and wildlife agencies are wisely taking advantage of this. As of June 2015, drones are zooming the skies above the prairies in Montana using 3D mapping software to evaluate various regions for black-footed ferret reintroduction. The goal is to increase mapping accuracy, speed up the process of their reintroduction into the wild and to save on costs as well.
- In the past, it has taken all summer for two people to walk the prairie fields in order to collect data and map a 7,500-acre area. It only takes three days for a drone to map a 1,000-acre area.
- Although nothing compares to humans in the field to observe black-footed ferrets, there are plans to use the drones in other ways, such as using thermal cameras on them in attempts to track these fierce hunters who love to dance.
Via J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS/USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr
Black-footed ferrets are known to do a jumping, hopping dance.
Dangers To Black-Footed Ferrets
- Loss of habitat, loss of prey and disease are the main reasons the black-footed ferret remains critically endangered.
- Prairie dog colonies have been reduced to less than 5 percent of the area they originally occupied, limiting where black-footed ferrets can live.
- Much of original habitat of prairie dog and black-footed ferret colonies has been and continues to be plowed for agricultural land and human development. Very little of these native grassland areas are protected.
- The decline of prey is also a result of widespread prairie dog eradication programs. Many people believe them to be pests, so they are poisoned or shot.
- Fatal, non-native diseases have also contributed to the reduction of ferret habitat. Lethal sylvatic plague outbreaks have devastated the prairie dog and black-footed ferret populations in the past and are an ongoing threat.
- World Wildlife Fund and others are trying to protect prairie dog populations from lethal sylvatic plague outbreaks by eliminating fleas that carry the plague bacterium and testing a newly developed oral bait vaccine for prairie dogs.
- According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a study is being done on a program that was developed to dust prairie dogs against the fleas that carry the sylvatic plague.
- Among the predators that are a threat to black-footed ferrets are golden eagles, owls, badgers, bobcats, falcons, hawks, rattlesnakes and coyotes.
How To Help Black-Footed Ferrets
- Explore. Find a zoo, museum or nature center that has a black-footed ferret or prairie dog exhibit. Visit prairie habitat at a wildlife refuge, national grassland or park, state or city natural areas.
- Learn. Research the Internet, journals, books and other resources to learn more about black-footed ferrets and the prairie ecosystem they need to survive so you are aware of their plight.
- Educate. Introduce children to and educate them about black-footed ferrets by having them read about them, watch videos and documentaries of them, and guiding them through interactive projects or taking them to an exhibit. Reach out and share what you’ve learned about black-footed ferrets with other people such as family, friends, co-workers, students, teachers and your local community so that they grow to appreciate and love black-footed ferrets. Infect people with the passion to help wildlife on our prairies! Let folks know that your prairie ecosystem and black-footed ferrets are worth saving for future generations to enjoy and inspire them to help and tell them how.
- Act. Speak up for black-footed ferrets and send a message to government leaders. Do a symbolic adoption of a black-footed ferret for yourself or gift someone (both Prairie Wildlife Research and World Wildlife Fund offer these). Follow and keep up to date on what is going on in the world of black-footed ferrets on the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center Facebook page. Contact the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center at 970-827-2730 to ask for other ways you can help.
Where To See Black-Footed Ferrets
Some of the places that you may visit to see a black-footed ferret exhibit include: Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado, Elmwood Park Zoo in Pennsylvania, Abilene Zoo in Texas and Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.